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News Release, NAVAIR Command Public Affairs Office
NAS Pax River, MD- The U.S. Naval Test Pilot School likes to tell its new students that half their day will be spent studying in class, and the other half will be spent flying — and the other half will be spent writing technical reports. The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged the school to come up with innovative ways to enable students to continue studying, flying, and writing while at the same time ensuring the health and safety of the entire school.
“In light of the Coronavirus pandemic, USNTPS is applying the talents of its people toward improving the working conditions to limit COVID-19 exposure risk,” said LtCol Rory Feely, USNTPS’ commanding officer. “Military operations and defense of the nation is at our very core, and seeking solutions to complex issues is what we do every day.”
Every year, TPS maintains its essential mission by training two classes of 36 students each representing the U.S. military services, civilian agencies, and international students. The school offers challenging 11-month curricula in fixed wing, rotary wing, and airborne and unmanned systems. Even without the travel and social-distancing restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic response, keeping all of that operating is more than a full-time job for the school’s staff and instructors.
In the days leading up to the pandemic, the school’s academic instructors began acquiring, testing, and rolling out a suite of online teaching and learning tools that allowed classes to convene remotely. As a result, students can now log in to a virtual classroom where they can communicate with each other and the instructor, and even write on virtual blackboards — though that last part took some ingenuity.
“The biggest challenge was figuring out how we could create a blackboard that we could write on,” said John O’Connor, the school’s director of academic instruction. “So prior to the rollout of the software, several academic instructors built rigs with retooled webcams that allowed the students to see what we were writing and drawing.”
Overall, the technology has worked smoothly, though learning from home can have its twists sometimes.
“We’ve had a few incidents of video bombing during a class,” O’Connor said with a laugh. “Interruptions by young children while you’re trying to teach is an occupational hazard now.”
Maintenance crews, flight instructors, and students have made similar adjustments to the flying portion of the curriculum in order to ensure that students are able to get the requisite flying hours to complete their graduation requirements.
“Typically we would be splitting the day between academics and flights, but with the senior class we made a decision to sprint towards the finish and attempt to get as much of their flying done as possible up front,” said CDR Ryan Donohue, the chief flight instructor. “We wanted to make sure that we were in a good position to allow the senior class to finish by getting critical events completed first and then follow up with other events that are not absolutely critical to their education.”
Donohue said that while the senior class has been busy flying, the juniors have been logging into their remote classes to double down on the academics. Then, when the seniors are caught up, the process will flip and the seniors will focus on academics while the juniors take to the air.
“With the junior class, we are maybe four weeks behind where we’d want to be exercise-wise,” Donohue said. “But when we start flying them again, we will be able to catch them back up to where they need to be.”
The capstone of the flight test curriculum is the final test project and report, which involves flying an aircraft that is new to each student and preparing a detailed evaluation and test plan for it. Typically, students travel to air bases across the country and even around the world to conduct these flights, but due to the travel restrictions that have been put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, opportunities have been limited to aircraft within the confines of Naval Air Station Patuxent River.
“We’re still able to meet our requirements here on the base, we just have to do a little bit of shifting around,” Donohue said. “Through the selfless acts of our sister test squadrons here and using a little bit of common sense, everybody’s going to get the opportunity to fly in an aircraft or use a system that is new to them.”
The COVID-19 pandemic may have slowed many other things in life to a crawl, but it has not slowed down the training of test pilots, Naval Flight Officers, and engineers at the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School. Instead, it has brought out the can-do, problem-solving attitude that is a hallmark of the tester and embodies the motto Ex Scientia Aeris Potentia — “From Knowledge, Air Power.”